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Fantasy Football Reset Year: Running Backs
Tim Van Prooyen
August 17, 2010
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Change happens every year in the NFL, this is no secret.  Fantasy owners bet on which rookie running back will be the next Emmitt Smith or L.T.  They debate whether the one or two first round quarterbacks will end up more like Ryan Leaf or Matt Ryan.  They wonder if the new environment will suit the latest superstar free agent to swap teams, or if he’ll lose his superstar status.  These things happen in small doses every year, it is part of the game…until it isn’t.  Every once in a while there is a year that transcends ‘normal’, a year that turns almost everything on its ear, a year when the fantasy world ‘resets’, a season when everything you knew a year ago – to a great extent – has change, a year like 2010.

In this series I break down the various skill positions, not from a prognostication standpoint, but rather simply to discuss the state of affairs, where people are, where the uncertainty lies and various other things to help primarily the guys (and girls!) who play fantasy football, but might not pay as much attention as the diehards.  Things are going to be very different this year in fantasy football than they have been in quite a few years, this is hard to debate.  Whether it is the tilt back toward more teams being built around quarterbacks and receivers due to the almost league-wide RBBC approach that has become epidemic of late, or more fantasy leagues experimenting with things like starting two quarterbacks, this is not the fantasy football environment you knew even a couple of years ago.  However, knowledge of the situations at hand will go a long way when making the tough decisions on draft day, so buckle up and hold on, because this is going to be a lot to digest!

Continuing our 2010 Restart series, we move on to the running back position.  The situation here is every bit as confusing as the quarterback position was, however in a slightly different way.  There are a lot of teams who have familiar names still on their roster, but the simple fact that only a very small number of teams will be going with a traditional feature back this year says all a fantasy owner needs to know – change is imminent.  The first thing you need to know is that only 28% of the teams in the NFL this year enter the year with one feature back as what is planned.  That is nine out of thirty-two teams.  If you look at how many of those teams will have fairly large questions – especially for fantasy owners – the number goes to twenty-three teams, or 69%.

Reset for Quarterbacks  |  Reset for Receivers

Reset Year in the AFC

Going into the 2010 season there are only four AFC teams (out of sixteen) who will have what can be considered a ‘stud’ running back.  Cincinnati, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Tennessee are the only teams that fantasy owners can, with little hesitation, grab the starter and consider him a back to ‘carry’ his or her team throughout the year.   In fact, the entire AFC West and AFC East are void of a back bearing that distinction.  Some might argue this to some extent, but it is hard to do so with any type of certainty.  Whether it is the dreaded Running Back By Committee (RBBC) approach or simply the addition of a seasoned veteran to back up a younger, unproven player, questions abound, and the way running backs are drafted will be curious at best.  Again, knowing who is what and where is the only way to be fully armed on draft day, so here we go with the AFC breakdown.

AFC EAST – All the teams in the AFC East can legitimately be placed in the RBBC column.  The Jets are actually one of the teams that, while they’ll share the football in the backfield, should have a couple of solid options for fantasy owners.  Shonn Greene will be the starter, but will be spelled often by future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, who should be perfect for the role and will see plenty of carries.  Remember that Greene only had just over 100 carries last season and really didn’t come on until the playoffs, when he hit big time, so he’s relatively unproven, but has a lot of upside.  The question really is who will get most of the goal line carries, and the early bets are on LT.  In Miami there is another situation where there are two backs that will, if healthy, get plenty of work.  In fact, Ronnie Brown thinks he and Ricky Williams will be only the second tandem in Dolphins history to both break the 1,000 yard mark in the same season.  A lot will have to go right for that to happen, but if either of them gets hurt it is going to be bad for the team because there isn’t much proven behind them, and neither of them is likely to be able to make it an entire season as the primary back.  In Buffalo things just took an interesting turn after their first preseason game.  Fred Jackson is banged up and will miss at least a couple of games in the regular season with a broken hand.  He was supposed to be the primary back, so that leaves rookie C.J. Spiller and Marshawn Lynch, and Lynch got banged up a bit too in the same game.  All in all this looks to be a crapshoot for most of the season, but all three backs should be good when they are on the field, which just makes for fantasy owner headaches.  Speaking of headaches, is there a bigger one than the Patriots backfield?  You have a starter in Laurence Maroney who keeps getting in the coaches doghouse and seems to have trouble getting it going on a pass first team.  Then you have a trio of solid, but very old (as running backs go) veterans in Fred Taylor, Sammy Morris and the best third down back ever, Kevin Faulk.  Needless to say, most if all will be drafted, and none will be studs, more because of the system than anything else.

AFC NORTH – The climate is a bit different in the AFC North.  First, in Baltimore, you have Ray Rice, the new superstar and likely top five pick in almost every draft this year.  Of course, Willis McGehee will steal a ton of goal line scores as he did last year, but that is the only down side to drafting Rice.  This is also one of the few teams who have things relatively well defined for fantasy owners.  Thank you from fantasy owners everywhere, Baltimore.  Cincinnati isn’t quite as cut and dry, but the main workhorse, as long as he stays healthy, will be Cedric Benson.  One of the better comeback stories from last year, Benson missed three of the last seven games of the season but still finished with over 1,200 yards and six touchdowns, so is very capable.  (Note that those numbers will look very good from just about any back this year, as few backs will get there.)  Brian Leonard, who was banged up this week, and Bernard Scott will get a solid amount of time but this borders ever so slightly right on the edge of the RBBC precipice.  In Cleveland questions abound.  The rookie who was all the rage, Montario Hardesty, was injured a couple of weeks ago and has fallen a good ways behind in preseason play, but he’ll be on the field in week one if he’s healthy.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that he’ll be sharing time with James Harrison.  Harrison will be the likely goal line back and third down guy, but in all probability this will be one of the more even splits we see this year, and the Browns are going to be a team that struggles to score points, so look out if drafting from this pool.  Finally there is Pittsburgh.  This at one time looked to be a possible one feature back candidate with Rashard Mendenhall as the primary ball carrier.  However, as of late the team has indicated that this may not be the case.  Mendenhall is still a solid early pick, but he’ll likely surrender a good amount of time to the likes of Mewelde Moore and rookie Jonathan Dwyer.  This situation seems to be changing almost daily, so you’ll want to read the latest before draft day and pay attention to preseason performances for as much as they are worth while trying to get a bead on what will happen here.

AFC SOUTH – This is a tale of two sides.  On one side you have Tennessee and Jacksonville who boast feature backs who will be drafted in the first three picks of almost every draft in fantasy football this year.  Tennessee will give the ball to Chris Johnson over and over and over again until he breaks, which they are banking won’t happen.  Jacksonville will go with Maurice Jones-Drew – or MJD as he’s affectionately known these days.  That is about all you need to know.  Their backups, barring injury, are fantasy zeros.  On the other side you have two teams with relatively big question marks.  Indianapolis, while they aren’t quite the chaotic mess that Houston is, has their own issues in the running game.  Joseph Addai is still the starter, but second year guy Donald Brown is going to get plenty of playing time.  The team seems to have been trying to replace Addai for a couple of years, at least when you look at how they’ve used him, but the reality is he just keeps plugging away – when healthy.  Brown will cut into Addai’s ten touchdowns and over 800 yards from last year, but the question is just how much.  This is the fantasy owner’s quandary.  If you draft Addai you have no choice but to get Brown as well, killing two draft selections, then wondering who to start each week.  In Houston things get really crazy.  Many were picking rookie Ben Tate to be the starter before too far into the season, but after an injury in the first preseason game that is likely season ending, that isn’t going to happen.  Now, Steve Slaton is healthy, Arian Foster is listed as the starter and isn’t showing anyone a reason he shouldn’t be, and Ryan Moats is still in the mix.  This is all on a team that throws the ball first and foremost.  The bottom line is, Slaton, and Foster are all going to be drafted in most drafts, probably relatively late, but which one will have the best year is anyone’s guess.  The smart money says that Foster now will get the majority of the goal line touches, but most of the time the team passes in that situation, so the value is even low there. 

AFC WEST – No other division in the AFC has as many backs with so little experience as does the AFC West.    All four teams will likely go with an RBBC approach, one will start a rookie, two will likely go with guys with one year experience as a starter, and one with two years as a starter.  Add to that mix one veteran in a new spot and this division has all the drama and uncertainty that any fantasy owner should be able to handle.  In San Diego rookie Ryan Mathews is the heir apparent to departed LT, but he’ll share the stage with the all purpose threat Darren Sproles.  Look for this to be somewhere close to a 60-40 split in carries with Mathews on the 60 side, but he could stretch that out a bit if he impresses early.  In keeper leagues this is a no brainer about whom to draft, but in redraft leagues, both will produce but neither will produce a ton.  Kansas City at least only has two viable candidates, that makes it a bit easier, but those candidates are likely going to get about an even split of carries.  Thomas Jones could be the best option simply because the team will likely use him in most goal line situations, but Jamaal Charles is the other ‘primary’ back in the fold.  They’ll make the team better on the field, but will make life miserable for fantasy owners from week to week as they try to figure out which one to start.  Denver could be one of the ugliest running back situations in the league this season.  There are plenty of backs on the team, but between injuries and performance – or lack of it – it is hard to guess who is going to be running the ball from week to week.  Knowshon Moreno has already gotten hurt in preseason and the team has added LenDale White and Justin Fargas to the list that includes Correll Buckhalter and J.J. Arrington.  In other words, if you can avoid any Denver backs on draft day, you’ll better your team by default.  Finally, in Oakland, the mess that has existed the past couple years has at least narrowed itself down to two, for all practical purposes.  Darren McFadden and Michael Bush will enter the year in a likely RBBC set up.  McFadden, it should be noted, has already been banged up, so Bush is getting the lead jump in the ‘competition’ to start, but make no mistake, this will be a split time thing.  The fact that the team has solid veterans like Rock Cartwright and Michael Bennett should one of the two starters goes down is good for them, but won’t be very much help to too many fantasy teams. 

FINAL AFC ASSESSMENT:  16 teams, 4-6 old vets/same teams, 11 likely RBBC’s, and 13 teams with plenty of question for fantasy owners to deal with on draft day.

Reset Year in the NFC

Going into the 2010 season there are only five NFC teams (out of sixteen) who will have what can be considered a ‘stud’ running back.   Minnesota, Green Bay, San Francisco, Atlanta and St. Louis are the only teams in the NFC that fantasy owners can, with little hesitation, grab the starter and consider him a back to ‘carry’ his or her team throughout the year.   Only six of sixteen teams in this conference are relatively free of pressing questions about who will carry the ball primarily during the season.  Some teams, like Chicago, have good backs but are moving to systems that may negate their value.  All in all, while there are a few less uncertainties on this side of the house, there are still more than the usual movings, shakings and questions. 

 NFC EAST – There are a lot of veteran names in the NFC East this season, no question.  However, considering how many names you’ll know, there is little certain when it comes to just who will see enough action to warrant drafting or starting in fantasy leagues.  In Dallas the names have been there a couple of years, the pecking order is still in some state of flux.  Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice all will see a good bit of action throughout the season.  Depending on which source you check you’ll see that some people are saying that Barber will be the ‘starter’.  Other places you’ll see that Jones will be the ‘starter’.  Obviously, in this situation, there is nothing certain except the fact that this will be a pure RBBC.  Between the three of them they had almost 400 carries last season, with the order above the order in which they finish in number of carries.  The guess is that Barbers number will shrink a bit and Jones’ will increase some, putting them both close to the 160 carry range, but this is simple prognostication, nothing scientific.  In New York the situation is similar.  You know the names, Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, but you also probably know the dilemma.  When the RB coach for the team comes right out and says that they won’t have a traditional starter and that play will dictate who is on the field, you know as a fantasy owner you’re in trouble.  The wild card with these guys is that neither one has the greatest history of staying healthy, so that just provides even more nervousness to owners on draft day.    In Washington another slate of veteran names has been assembled.  The returning starter, Clinton Portis, will have plenty of company and competition this season as the team brought in Larry Johnson and Willie Parker to help out the aging, oft injured (of late) veteran.  Anyone who knows how Mike Shanahan works knows that he’s capable of having a workhorse running back – Portis actually was one for him at one time – but he’s also capable of getting a bunch of running backs pieces of work on different weeks.  This situation is shaping up as the later, so be very wary before drafting any of these guys.  The only place in the NFC East that doesn’t have a big name vet or three this year is Philadelphia.  They are going young at running back as well as quarterback, resting their fortunes on second year back LeSean McCoy.  He has plenty of potential, but hasn’t even been a starter for an entire year, so there are plenty of questions surrounding him.  He’ll be backed up, and probably spelled at the goal line, by former Saint Mike Bell.  If Bell is healthy he’s a very good goal line back, but he’s already started the year with some hamstring issues, so this could be a very thin spot. 

NFC NORTH – Two of the teams here have feature backs and little or no questions.  Minnesota of course has Adrian Peterson, and now that Chester Taylor has moved to Chicago, AP should get just about all the action.  Of course the decision of Bret Favre will have some impact on AP’s performance, but it should be negligible.  If you draft AP you should grab rookie Toby Gerhart as insurance, meaning there is little to no depth behind Peterson, not always a good thing.  In Green Bay Ryan Grant is about it.  Brandon Jackson remains his back up but he’s not worth fantasy consideration so the choice is easy here – well, almost easy.  Grant had a concussion in the team’s first preseason game and had to leave the game, so there is some question as to how that will affect him going forward.  Concussions have caused trouble for the likes of Frank Gore, Clinton Portis and Brian Westbrook in recent years just to name a few.  After these two teams things get a little, or a lot, more muddy.   Chicago seemed to be safely in the side of ‘feature’ back territory until this offseason.  Matt Forte struggled last year as a sophomore and the team not only brought in Chester Taylor as a solid backup (and likely time-share option) but they also brought in Mike Martz to run the offense.  Anyone familiar with a Martz run offense knows that it tends not to be very good for running backs not named Marshall Faulk.  Therefore what seemed to be a lock just a year ago now is full of questions and leans more toward RBBC.  In Detroit there is a lot of promise, but more than a few questions.  The team lost starter Kevin Smith last year to a torn ACL, but he’s already back on the field and likely will be available for the season.  The problem is the team moved up in the draft to get a second first round draft pick and used it on speedster Jahvid Best.  Best looked very good in his first preseason game and will start the season as the starter, but this will be a RBBC for sure, with Best, Smith and veteran Maurice Morris all getting work.  Morris will be more of a short yardage, goal-line back when used. 

NFC SOUTH – First the sure bet.  Carolina will split their carries – of which there will be a ton – between their two co-starters DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.  Ok, in reality Williams is the starter, but the two split almost evenly 437 carries 221 – 216.  It doesn’t get much closer than that.  They also had 17 touchdowns between them, so whichever one you draft will be basically a number one back in this year’s field.  Consider they both topped 1,100 yards rushing last year before arguing with that point.  With two ‘feature’ backs for all practical purposes, if one gets hurt the other is the back up, so depth isn’t really an issue.  In Atlanta we find the only team in the South that has a bona fide feature back, Michael Turner.  He has two solid back ups in Jason Snelling and Jerious Norwood, but as long as Turner stays healthy, he gets the rock.  New Orleans is first and foremost a passing team, and this isn’t going to change this season.  That being said, it must be noted that the three top running backs last season for the Saints combined for 389 carries for 1,837 yards and 16 touchdowns.  This is nothing to scoff at, but figuring out who’s going to get the ball is not so much fun.  With Mike Bell now in Philadelphia, Reggie Bush may get more of a role as a rusher, but most fantasy owners are expecting and hoping that it will simply mean a bigger role for Pierre Thomas.  Thomas, however, hasn’t been able to stay healthy for long stretches, keeping the risk high.  Beyond these two there is not much else to worry about now as Lynell Hamilton was hurt last week and will be out for the season.  The question now is, will the team just through more, or will they still try carrying almost 400 times?  Tampa Bay had another of the candidates for comeback player of the year with Cadillac Williams, who has been written off a couple of times after injuries just to bounce back with solid outings.  He is as big a draft risk as they come and will split time with Derrick Ward, the former Giant.  They will get the bulk of work, but if – more likely when – one or both of them get injured, look for Earnest Graham to pick up the slack.  All in all, none of these guys will make fantasy owners too happy, and while it’s a safer place to draft than, say, Denver, it should stay near the bottom of the heap.

NFC WEST – This is the final division in our list and the last one with two teams with feature backs and two teams with a full set of questions.  San Francisco has one of the safest stud starter picks in the game in Frank Gore.  His only real ‘competition’, Glenn Coffee, retired from football this week, meaning the only options behind Gore are Michael Robinson and Anthony Dixon – neither of which has any fantasy value.  In St. Louis Steven Jackson remains the feature back, though his health has been suspect of late.  There are rumors that Brian Westbrook may sign to help alleviate some of the workload on Jackson, but as long as he’s healthy, Jackson will be called on to carry the team this year, the only question is, can he stay healthy?  Questions become plentiful when we move to Arizona.  Chris Wells is now the starter, but he and Tim Hightower will still share much of the load, as they did last year.  With the departure of Kurt Warner the team will try to run the ball more, which will help both of them, but they still won’t get enough individual numbers to warrant drafting too early.  Hightower actually has much more value as a receiver out of the backfield, especially in PPR leagues.  He could be the only back on this team to top 1,000 total yards on the season.  Seattle, wrapping things up, is basically the NFC version of the AFC’s Denver this season.  The list of names is well known.  Justin Forsett, Julius Jones, Quinton Ganther and Leon Washington all will see action this season.  Forsett seems to be the likely starter, but that isn’t saying much when talking Seattle.  Jones is horrible at best, Washington is coming off an injury, and Ganther doesn’t have much upside.  Washington, should he be healthy, actually has possibly the best shot at a solid season, as much as any of these backs will have a solid season.  If you can avoid this situation entirely, you should.  If you can’t, grab Forsett or Washington and avoid the other two.

FINAL NFC ASSESSMENT:  16 teams, 5 old vets/same teams, 10 likely RBBC’s, and 10 teams with plenty of question for fantasy owners to deal with on draft day.

CONCLUSION

The running back position, probably more than any of the skill positions, has changed more this year than most.  While names are familiar in many places, the simple fact that only 8 or 9, depending on definition, teams are heading into the season with feature backs is something we haven’t seen in at least fifteen years.  The day of ‘stud’ number one running backs is behind us, at least for a while, and the day of stacking up with second tier running backs and hoping for the best is upon us.  More championship teams are likely to be won this year by teams built around quarterbacks and receivers than running backs for the first time in quite a while.  Know the situations and know them well, then draft smart.  There will be some very good backs drafted in the 10th round and on this year in most leagues, the trick will be to know which one to grab. 

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